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Hubble Goes to the eXtreme to Assemble Farthest-Ever View of the Universe

The Hubble Space Telescope produces the farthest-ever view of the universe. Still no sightings of life. // Image: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team

The truth is out there! (Unfortunately, we’re stuck down here.)

The SETI Institute is developing a new device to listen for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos. Will it do any good?

July 28, 2017 — 

These days, with all the TV shows and movies about aliens coming to Earth (including The X-Files, Transformers, Thor, and even Superman), it seems as though visits by extraterrestrials is basically a given. One would think that it’s only a matter of time before they will appear and President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau will announce that Rigelians have arrived and want to sign a peace treaty. Or eat us. Either way, we’ll finally know that we are not alone.

But of course, that’s science fiction, and while it’s fun to speculate about life elsewhere in the universe, reality tempers that hopeful expectation.

Not that Earth scientists haven’t been trying. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) dates at least back to the 1960s when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope to “listen” to some nearby stars, hoping to hear alien versions of radio broadcasts. Carl Sagan popularized this further and lobbied for private and government funding to support other search programs through the 1980s. While no SETI programs have found anything, they have raised public awareness of the concept of contact with life from outside Earth, boosted by Hollywood movies such as Contact (1997) and the recent Arrival (2016).

Canadian participation in SETI has ranged from the Canadian Space Agency’s development of several cameras and other devices scheduled to be launched on the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, to the Near-infrared Optical SETI (NIROSETI) program of the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto, which began in 2015. The latter is based at Lick Observatory in California, scanning the skies looking for bursts of infrared light from distant civilizations.

Aside from a few blips here and there that got some SETI advocates excited, nothing substantial has been detected during more than 50 years of watching and listening to the skies. No alien S.O.S., no Centauri versions of Murdoch Mysteries, nothing.

Blakc and white image of fictional alien ET

Still trying to phone us up

Does this mean there are no aliens out there? No. It could mean that advanced alien civilizations don’t use radio or TV anymore. It could mean that aliens are out there, but live on planets so far away that their radio signals haven’t reached is yet, since radio waves travel at the speed of light. Discoveries by astronomers of “nearby” planets like Earth show most of them are hundreds of light-years away from us, meaning we might have to wait hundreds of years to detect anything from them.

This also means that practical travel between us and them (or vice-versa) is impossible using known technology. So UFOs are out, unless they have really advanced technology that we can’t even fathom. This, despite the fact that more than 1,000 UFO reports are filed each year, some through Transport Canada and other agencies, and a small percentage are unexplained. But this is a long way from saying aliens are visiting Earth.

What this does suggest is that Canadians, like residents of other countries, are fascinated with the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. People from BC to Newfoundland gaze into the skies at night and wonder if the truth really is out there.

And if there are aliens out there, here’s a summer vacation travel tip: there is a UFO Landing Pad in St. Paul, Alberta, waiting for you. It was built in 1967 as a Centennial Project by the town. Maybe for Canada’s 150th, it’s time for a UFO to finally use it.

 

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